Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Human Rights Obligations of Intergovernmental Organizations

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Human Rights Obligations of Intergovernmental Organizations

Article excerpt

Many observers agree through several lines of argument that intergovernmental organizations, such as the various bodies of the United Nations system, are subject to international human rights law and thus capable of violating human rights. If we accept that premise, then there is a need for some sort of mechanism to sound the alarm and take corrective action when these organizations violate or are suspected of violating human rights. The main point here is not that these agencies sometimes go wrong, but that there is no effective institutional mechanism in place to put them right.

There are many stories of wrongdoing by international governmental organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization. It is not only non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that sound the alarm, but also intergovernmental agencies sometimes take notice. For example, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has acknowledged that sanctions imposed by the Security Council may violate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While the impact of sanctions varies from one case to another, the Committee is aware that they almost always have a dramatic impact on the rights recognized in the Covenant. For example, they often cause significant disruption in the distribution of food, pharmaceuticals and sanitation supplies, jeopardize the quality of food and the availability of clean drinking water, severely interfere with the functioning of basic health and education systems, and undermine the right to work.

In addition, their unintended consequences can include reinforcement of the power of oppressive elites, the emergence almost invariably of a black market and the generation of huge windfall profits for the privileged elites who manage it, enhancement of control of the governing elites over the population at large, and restriction of opportunities to seek asylum or manifest political opposition. While these phenomena are essentially political in nature, they also have a major additional impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. (1)

United Nations bodies, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also get their share of criticism. UNICEF, for example, has been subject to severe criticism. The argument is not that the allegations of human rights violations are correct or incorrect, but that there is no institutional arrangement in place to address them.

Some intergovernmental agencies act as if they were wholly autonomous sovereign bodies, answerable to no one. They do have boards of directors to which they are answerable, but often these boards direct the very action that needs to be corrected and are not independent agents outside these bodies that would hold them accountable.

"Impunity can be understood as the absence or inadequacy of penalties and/or compensation for massive and grave violations of the human rights of individuals or groups of individuals." (2) To some degree, repeated demonstrations at World Bank and IMF meetings can be understood as protests against the impunity with which both institutions operate. Some observers question whether institutions can have moral responsibilities, or whether international human rights law can apply to businesses or intergovernmental agencies.

The IMF General Counsel argues that the International Covenant--a treaty among States that contains obligations addressed to them--does not apply to the Fund. Neither by its terms nor the terms of the IMF relationship agreement with the United Nations is it possible to conclude that the Covenant is applicable to the Fund. Moreover, the norms contained in the Covenant have not attained a status under general international law that would make them applicable to the IMF independently of the Covenant. …

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